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Time to start teaching climate change


Returning home on a frosty evening, I mentally reviewed my science lessons for the week ahead.

Teaching climate change has become a priority, now that people around the globe have begun experiencing record-breaking weather events that impinge on their quality of life.1 In the classroom, my students trust that I’ll help them learn the important information they need to know for a bright future. How to fulfil this weighty responsibility stays on my mind long after I step out of the school building.

A South African message for the world

That afternoon, I had left school both exhausted and harried, quickly changing into formal attire to arrive on time at Columbia University, in New York City, for the Vetlesen Awards dinner.2 By the end of the evening, I was inspired and energised. S. George Philander3 was one of the two recipients of this prestigious award, given for outstanding achievement in the sciences resulting in a clearer understanding of Earth and its history. Originally from Cape Town, he’s now a professor at Princeton University in the US, as well as a research professor at the University of Cape Town in the Western Cape in South Africa, and the founder of the Applied Centre for Climate & Earth Systems Science (ACCESS)4 in South Africa. Philander was being honoured for his ground-breaking work in the field of climate science. During his acceptance speech, he emphasised the importance of educating the public about climate change, through engaging approaches and positive messages that motivate others to take action to protect this most astonishing place we call Earth. We teachers are in a unique position to address this most significant global issue of our time.

Tiny tots also need to be told

Although those who don’t understand the science may try to dissuade you, there’s plenty of information from reliable sources at your fingertips to support you in the teaching of climate change. The scientific evidence is in.5 No matter what local weather we’re experiencing on a day-to-day basis, our planet is warming up, with far-reaching implications for us all. The conversation in scientific circles now is how Earth will respond, how well the living things on Earth will be able to adapt, who will be the winners and the losers, and what we can do to slow down our warming planet. Some think of climate change as a topic for grown-ups. However, even young children are able to understand the basic idea.

More importantly, they’re able to begin taking action to slow down global warming. It’s in their best interest to do so. Their future depends on the actions we all take now. If we teachers, and their parents, don’t tell them the truth, and don’t point the way toward a positive future, who will? When talking with children about climate change, we need to match the depth of conversation to the child’s age. Keep it honest. Children want to know the truth. They want to understand this world they’re living in without being overwhelmed by too much information.

Explain the difference between day-to-day weather and climate – the average weather over a long period of time (a decade or more). Read a children’s book about climate change together. If working with very young children, read a book about recycling and taking care of the environment. For older students, assign pairs to read and discuss newspaper articles on climate. A quick search on the Cape Times website6 or the New York Times website7 will bring up a multitude of articles.

Visit Kids Against Climate Change,8 a website my students and I created to help children learn about climate change. There you’ll find links to reliable climate information for younger children, as well as older children.Begin with the basics, so students understand that human-created air pollution is causing global warming, and that this warming is having multiple effects, including drastic changes to typical weather patterns around the world.

Make the message meaningful

Complicated topics such as the greenhouse gas effect, which describes why Earth is warming, can be explained at different levels, from basic understanding to complicated chemical equations. The important part is that children understand that some gases, such as carbon dioxide, trap the sun’s warmth near the earth. We need some of this warmth to sustain life on this planet, so some carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is a good thing. However, the more carbon dioxide in the air, the warmer the planet becomes. Our quality of life depends on having fairly predictable weather and a liveable climate. Adding more carbon dioxide to the air threatens this, because the additional warmth it causes upsets the balance of natural systems.

Older children will appreciate the scientific evidence for climate change, as explained in the YouTube video “What is Climate? Climate Change, Lines of Evidence: Chapter 1”9 by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.10 In the short term (the past 200 years), it’s clear to see that the increased carbon dioxide in the air from factories, power plants and cars has caused our planet to warm. Looking farther back in time (thousands, or even millions of years), students can research the fossil evidence and chemical evidence of global temperature fluctuations. Note that climatic shifting takes place over thousands of years, not the short time scale we’re seeing now since the Industrial Revolution. That’s the distinct difference between natural climate shifts and our human-caused global warming. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) website11 is a good place for students to practise their research skills, and their ability to read and comprehend graphs.

Get out and about

To engage students, take them to a local science museum, or a natural history museum. Look for displays showing evidence of Earth’s climate thousands or even millions of years ago, using sediment cores, hyrax middens, fossils, signs of changing sea levels, etc. Arrange a tour or a lesson at a local aquarium, national park or wildlife sanctuary. Let the guide know ahead of time that your students are especially interested in hearing how the local ecosystem is being affected by climate change. Take a field trip to a wind farm, solar farm or recycling facility. Contact a science department at your local university: geology, oceanography, atmospheric sciences or environmental sciences. See if they give tours. Invite a climate scientist to your school. Ask them to bring physical evidence and a slide show of evidence-gathering in the field. What a life-changing experience it can be to engage with real scientists, and see how they know what they know.

Talk it all through

Once children understand the difference between weather and climate, and the cause and effect between carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and global warming, they’ll want to know why it matters. It’s all about keeping our earth in balance to maintain our quality of life. Classroom conversations can empower them. As with all of the other scary things in life we need to discuss with our children, they can handle it if they understand that they have some control over the situation. It’s encouraging for them to know that they’re not alone. There are actions people are taking now to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide going into the air. And they can too, even if they’re just kids. Student collaborations can be powerful. Use the Kids Against Climate Change website to motivate and empower your students. Introduce them to the site, and let them know they’ll be joining the climate change discussion with children in other countries, so they’ll need to learn their lessons well. Later, give them time to add their comments to the ongoing conversation on the site.

Sun Valley in Cape Town links with Cottage Lane School in New York

Recently, I had the privilege of working with Sun Valley Primary School in Cape Town. This progressive South African school has taken a global approach to teaching environmental stewardship. Linking up with my school in New York, students shared their ideas by blogging, making online posters12 together, and attending classes together via Skype.13 The Sun Valley students had the opportunity to tell their American counterparts, “Hey, your air pollution is going to affect my future.” The American students similarly realised that air pollution caused by others, near and far, would end up affecting them personally. However, working together, they realised that kids in other countries also cherished their natural surroundings, and they too wanted a good future. Combining their efforts to help reduce climate change just made sense. As Sun Valley student, Ethan (age 10), said: “I’m thinking if one person can make a small difference, if the kids here [in South Africa] and there [in America] spread their knowledge about taking care of the environment, we can make a big difference. Just think how much better it is when we all work together! This inspires me. I feel like I’m part of something important!”

Set good examples

As our words turn into actions, we do become part of something bigger, something important. Teachers who set a good example by recycling at school, turning off lights and telling their students about other ways they demonstrate environmental stewardship, influence hundreds of minds over the course of their career. Children who reuse bags and plastic bottles, and encourage their families to reduce their electricity use, establish habits for a lifetime of personal responsibility.

Older children who form an environmental club at their school, and encourage others to reduce, reuse and recycle, are able to spread the word tenfold. Even very young children can begin learning that we need to take care of Planet Earth, even if they don’t yet fully understand why. For additional ideas, visit Kids Against Climate Change. Further, a look at the African Climate Reality Project website,14 or googling green technology, will convince students that many people are working to mitigate climate change. Educational systems in many countries are beginning to understand the responsibility and power we teachers have to move society forward.

Both the National Curriculum in South Africa15 and the Next Generation Science Standards in the US16 require the teaching of Earth’s natural systems and helping students understand their responsibility towards the environment. Further, South Africa’s National Curriculum and the US’s Common Core State Standards17 both require the reading and analysis of non-fictional texts and the writing of expository essays, providing opportunities for students to practise these skills while learning climate content. As we combine these goals with “best practices” to help students understand important concepts that affect their lives, we begin to realise our important role in influencing society’s priorities.

Teachers don’t have to be climate experts

Don’t worry about not being an expert on climate change. We’re teachers, not scientists. There’s a series of lessons to get you started on Kids Against Climate Change.18 You can also plunge in by visiting the websites at the end of this article.19 They’ll lead you to informative sites with reliable information. The important thing is to start talking about our changing climate, and to begin modelling ways to help slow it down.

The quality of our children’s lives, and their children’s lives, depends on the actions we take today. The next morning, a bit bleary-eyed from my late night out, I reread the sign on my classroom wall, near my desk, “We taught the lessons, but did we have an impact? Did we help the human race?” When we introduce students to the causes and effects of Earth’s changing climate, and help them to understand what they can do to slow it down, the answer is a confident “Yes.” As the children poured into the room, I was ready to get going. Time to start teaching climate change.

Kottie Christie-Blick is an international educational consultant and an educator at Cottage Lane School in New York, in the US. She has published articles in several educational journals and on educational websites, and has presented at conferences across the US and in several other countries, including South Africa. She is also a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Stewards Educator and a Distinguished Fulbright Teacher. We are honoured that Christie-Blick adapted this article especially for Independent Education.


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Category: Winter 2017

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